Saturday, August 23, 2014

Camp, Campers, and Public Safety

A Letter To Summer Camp Counsellors / Staff:

What is your job? Really, when it get down to the basics, what are you charged with doing? Many of you might say, 'ensuring the kids have a good time,' and you'd be right, that's one aspect of your job, but it's not the primary, basic, part of the job of Camp Counsellor. The first priority of your job is to keep the children in your care safe. Everything else comes from that. I know this because I was once, in my youth, a camp counsellor.

Yes, safety is the primary goal. But you need to define safety quite broadly. Safe from harm, obviously. Safe from being bullied or excluded by others, much less obviously. And, you have a responsibility to keep members of the public safe when you take the kids out for a field trip somewhere, anywhere.

Field trip?



I can hear those questions rising in your minds. Let me give you an example. I went somewhere yesterday, one of Toronto's big tourist attractions, because I was taking friends there. When we arrived there were thousands upon thousands of children everywhere. They were all wearing matching coloured tee shirts announcing that they were part of a camp. I thought, upon seeing the tee shirts, that I'll be OK because the kids were in small groups and those groups were under supervision.

Here's two things that happened:

I was looking at a display monitor that had a touch screen that allowed me to access more information. Suddenly there appeared on the other side of a screen, a boy about 8. He stood there, and simply stared at me. His eyes running up and down my body taking it all in. It's incredibly invasive, these kind of full body scans. His camp counsellor was standing about six inches away from him, looking at another display. Clearly the counsellor forgot that he wasn't there to see the display he was there to supervise children. I finally said, kindly, "Please go look at something else, you are making me uncomfortable." He didn't move. But the counsellor did. He came and took him by the hand and guided him away. A glance of annoyance thrown my way was the CC's only interaction with me at all.


Like I was supposed to let the kid do what he was doing. Like I was supposed to stop being a visitor and become an exhibit. Like, because he was a kid, I should let him do it.

Later, that same day, Joe and I were near ready for lunch. We were leaving a room into which a tsunami of children were crashing in. There were a group of 5 girls, maybe 10, who landed right in front of my wheelchair and right behind them was their CC. The girls, as if I could neither see them or hear them, began laughing at me because of my 'big fat belly'. I let this go on for a second, waiting for intervention, I looked to the CC who didn't even notice it. I don't know where she was but she wasn't at work. I have something I use, rarely, only in emergencies: my mother's look. My mother could stop a raging stampede of buffalo with her look. I pulled it out dusted it off and gave them the look. They stopped. "I can see you, you know," I said, calmly but firmly, "I can hear you, too. What I see and hear are rude young women. You know better than to laugh at people. You are just mean bullies and I have no respect for people who hurt other people. Get out of my way."

My statement, not loud, not angry, just firm, caught the ear of the CC who was shocked. The girls were completely silent, and a little upset, as the opened a space between them to let me through. I left, told Joe that I was weary of being there, and we headed out.

The subject of bullying and social violence is not a new one. Camp Counsellors probably work hard, or I hope they do, that kids don't bully kids in their programs. But when they are taking these kids into public, in a diverse city like Toronto, they need to be aware that there are people with differences and with disabilities that walk the street - in full daylight. Those same people with differences and with disabilities might even actually go to museums and galleries and tourist places. That being the case, isn't it the job of the camp to have policies about the safety of the public when the children are in public places? Isn't it the job of the camp counsellors to prepare the kids for what to do when they see someone who is different? Can't they be taught the skills for knowing what to do when they encourage human diversity?

And should that teaching fail, isn't it the job of the Camp Counsellor to be alert to the behaviour of those in their charge? Shouldn't they be ready to intervene? Isn't that their job? The safety of the kids, the safety of others who share space with those kids?

Well, I tell you, it's not my job to intervene. I'll tell you too, it's hard to intervene when you are being targeted by anyone. Being openly stared at, or openly mocked, isn't easier to deal with because the kids are between 8 and 10 - everyone says that kids don't understand but I know they do. So, I restrain my annoyance and even anger, and use the calm voice I've developed over the years. But it's work. A lot of work. And I don't believe in this instance that it's my work to do. It's yours, Camp Counsellors.

So do it.


Myrrien said...

That sounds wonderful Dave, can you bottle that calm voice and send it to me. And as a parent if either of my children were to act with such disrespect you have my permission to use that voice

Shan said...

Oh man I feel for you on this one - it's such an anxiety-inducing moment when you see the 'tsunami' of matching t-shirts roll in. You know you're going to be dealing with stepped-on feet, or splashed faces if it's at the pool, way-too-high volume, little poisonous group dynamics erupting all around. My kids usually ask if we can leave wherever we are, when a day camp arrives.

I think you handled it really well although of course you're right it's not your job to handle it. I do think you might give these counsellors too much credit on the subject of bullying and exclusion. From what I've seen, young people who sign up for this job are usually not pillars of social justice longing to guide and nurture little minds. They're simply doing a summer babysitting job, with nametags and a better wage. I've never yet seen one intervene in a case of non-physical bullying.

Kristine said...

Ugh, people.... Yes, that's absolutely the counselors' job. One of the main reasons for taking kids on field trips isn't just for them to learn about the exhibit or whatever, but also for them to learn how to act in the world. When we take our kids anywhere (which happened more often prior to budget cuts...), we give them plenty of spiel before leaving about behavioral expectations--how to walk, talk, and act so that they aren't bothering other people. During the trip, we're doing our best to monitor and make sure they aren't ruining anybody's day. The camp counselors may not have noticed everything, but once it's drawn to their attention, there's definitely no excuse!

I like how their wasn't a hint of condescension in what you said to those girls. They aren't "kids who don't know better." They're young women who absolutely know better.

For all the talk we do about bullying these days, I still think we're doing a terrible job teaching kids about it. I see all these anti-bully campaigns at school, and the kids walk away able to identify when they're a victim of bullying, but without any shade of awareness about when they're the one doing the bullying. We can do better.

Anonymous said...

This so needs saying. In addition to the primary issue of making safety, I think we also owe it to young people stretching their power and influence to hold them to account for their actions and support them to behave in ways that mean they can respect themselves.
And Kristine I agree this is so true: 'For all the talk we do about bullying these days, I still think we're doing a terrible job teaching kids about it. I see all these anti-bully campaigns at school, and the kids walk away able to identify when they're a victim of bullying, but without any shade of awareness about when they're the one doing the bullying. We can do better.’

Anonymous said...

I love the way you reacted. Unfortunately (and I say this as a former camp counselor) camp counselors are often not much older than the campers themselves, in high school or college. Training is sparse because it's temporary. They often see camp as not even a summer job, just a place to have some fun and get paid. They don't take it seriously because they haven't yet learned how to take a job seriously, and even though they know how to be people as well as any other older teen/young 20something does, they don't tend to know yet how to manage the behavior of others. I hope that doesn't sound like I'm either defending or villifying counselors. These are just the facts as I know them, as someone who has been through this and knows how unprepared camp counselors are to handle unexpected behavior from kids.

Anonymous said...

RIGHT ON!! I have heard a few accounts of late of children accompanied by adults for supervision that have failed miserably. One I heard this week was a friend's daughter in Europe with her class accompanied by adults for supervision being sick (both ends) for 4 days without any care or intervention while in Paris. The child was frightened, sick, and very disappointed - her only support was from her texting her mom in Canada. Not even gingerale or immodium was offered. The adults were not about to miss Paris for one child. Things like this and your account make you wonder just why the adults are there. Just a free ride to an event, display, country??? Surely part of the trip should be a preparation for such events, whether illness or meeting those different than themselves. Children should be taught to be respectful of all. We should have some tolerance for their youth but no tolerance for rudeness. I too have been a camp counsellor, and I certainly would not have let any of those things happen in any place to any one. That was part of my job. RESPECT

clairesmum said...

Anonymous 21:19 has identified the core issue, I think. I worked as a camp nurse one summer at residential camp, and many of the counselors were Europeans on a summer visa who were more focused on the two weeks of travel between end of camp and their cheap charter flight home than they were on emotional needs of campers and group dynamics. It was not a well run camp, and I didn't go back. I think that the camp leadership really sets a tone, and a private camp may be more invested in values and behaviors and reputation of the camp. Many day programs are really loosely organized babysitting with not much commitment to values other than physical safety. Doesn't make it right, tho.

FunMumX3 said...

Agree 100% and sorry that this was your experience. I do talk with my kids and their friends about being respectful to everyone in public. I hope it sinks in….

But my recent experience has been camp where Ms 18 (has down syndrome) has always been included successfully and now Mr 16 is a counsellor. I was observing the counsellors last week at pickup and they are WONDERFUL… this is not just a job, this is a calling for many of them, my son included. Now, it's a United Church camp and sleepover camp too so perhaps draws the kind of staff that are more than just causal workers. They have regular counsellors and some dedicated inclusion counsellors for kids with high needs and they are amazing young people.

I hope that the influence of these types of counsellors spreads far and wide!

Ron Arnold said...

Peer orientation does stuff like that. It's sad. Thing is - when you have a congregate group of kids and one adult, they may pay lip service to the adult but the over-riding authority is still the values (and bond) held by the group.

I'm glad you were able to (hopefully) give them a small piece of enlightenment, but my fear is it will be forgotten. Generation after generation of peer orientation is going to be an impossible thing for society at large to overcome, unless it is overcome one child at a time . . . .